Lessons of Ayurveda for Vedic Cosmology

The previous post discussed the model of the human body in Ayurveda. If you haven’t noticed, the most surprising aspect of Ayurveda is that it remains silent on what modern medicine calls heart, lungs, intestines, brain, pancreas, spleen, etc. It is surprising because modern medical education begins with anatomy and memorizing anatomy is every student’s job in the first year of medical school. Of course, Ayurveda also has a branch called shalya-chikitsa, or surgery which relies on anatomy. But for the most part, Ayurveda doesn’t dwell on anatomy because it uses a conceptual model of the body quite different from the perceptual model. This means that the gross body is not the human anatomy as we see it. This fact offers some insights into the Vedic cosmological model too because the cosmological model is not what we see. Just as a complete description of the human body exists without a description of human anatomy, similarly, a complete description of the cosmic model exists in Vedic cosmology without reference to what we see.

Where is the Gross Body?

The gross body in Sāńkhya is said to be comprised of Pañca-Mahābhūta which are properties such as form, color, size, etc. These properties are encoded by atomic objects when atoms are treated as symbols. I have previously discussed this topic at length, outlining how a revision to our understanding of nature is needed in which we treat the material world not as a collection of objects, but as information or symbols of meaning.

Thus, some atom encodes shape, another encodes color, another encodes the size, and so forth. Together, all these atoms encode a picture that we can see. These pictures can be abstract or detailed, and accordingly, the picture appears to be far or near. For example, if you are looking at a human heart from a distance, what you see is an outline picture of the heart, encoded by some atoms. We think that the perception of the outline is because of a greater physical distance when the reality is that we are seeing the outline which then makes us think that it is distant from us. In other words, the physical space (i.e. distance) is produced from the type of picture we are seeing—abstract or detailed.

Gross Body is Perceptual Information

If you go on a sea beach and click a picture, you can see that picture later on your computer screen. The picture inside the computer is not the sea beach, but it recreates the experience of the beach. In the same way, the world is not how we see it. It is rather those symbols (as in a picture file) from which we can create the sensory experience of the world. In Sāńkhya, the external world is called “sense objects” which are produced from tanmātra such as taste or smell, which are in turn produced from the senses. In other words, Sāńkhya tells us that the external world is not material objects. It is rather the properties that we perceive—e.g. taste, smell, touch, etc.—although it exists objectively.

This objective reality can be understood as a set of digital files which encode a picture. The file that encodes a picture is objective and not subjective. And yet the file is not a sea beach. Instead, it creates the perception of a sea beach. When the gross material world is understood in this way, then we can also see that the gross material body is not the physical anatomy—i.e. heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, etc. Rather, there is an informational reality that creates the experience of this anatomy. When you see a picture on your computer screen, the picture is not the reality. The reality is the digital file that is stored in the disk of the computer, from which the picture is created. In the same way, the reality is informational in the sense that there is something real, but just not what we see.

Abstract and Detailed Information

Once we understand that the world is perceptual information, then we have to understand that this information is organized hierarchically to create the impression of “distance” in space. Thus, there are some files that encode the heart’s shape as an outline, and other files that encode the heart in detail. These files are organized as a tree (just like computer files). Looking at the object from afar is the result of opening a higher-level folder. Similarly, looking at the object from near is the result of opening a lower-level folder. Our perception can zoom in or out, but that zooming in or out does not involve motion in space. It only involves opening up a different file (abstract or detailed).

Each such view is a picture and the “total” heart is not a big round object, but a collection of picture files, with the higher files encoding abstract information, and lower files encoding detailed information. When we obtain a close-up view of an object, we do not actually get close to that object. We are just opening a file called the “detailed picture”. Likewise, when we obtain a distant view of the object we are not actually far from the object. We are just opening a file called the “abstract picture”. Each such file can encode information regarding shapes, sizes, colors, tastes, smells, sounds, or touches, but we don’t perceive the symbols through the senses. We only perceive their effects.

Therefore, what medicine calls “anatomy” is our perception of the symbolic world, but not the symbols themselves. The reality is symbolic. This symbolic reality also exists in a three-dimensional space, but those three dimensions have little in common with the three dimensions of perception.

The True Foundations of Ayurveda

In Ayurveda, these three dimensions are called dosha, bhūta, and dhātu as we have previously seen. Ayurveda gets by without describing anatomy because it is describing the reality that lies “behind” the perception. You can’t see dosha, bhūta, and dhātu by the senses, but you can explain the perception of your gross body (i.e. anatomy) using dosha, bhūta, and dhātu. In a sense, Ayurveda provides a model of the behavior of the body (i.e. disease and health) without reference to what we see.

In the Ayurveda model, the human body doesn’t have a heart, lungs, spleen, stomach, intestines, pancreas, etc. even though we see them. Most modern Ayurveda physicians would not accept this idea today, because the knowledge of Ayurveda has largely been lost as we have become so used to seeing the gross body as a sum total of anatomical parts. Just practicing Ayurveda in its true spirit itself involves material (and spiritual) advancement because at least now we understand what gross matter is!

The fact is that at the present, most people don’t even understand the gross matter. They just think that the body is Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether, but they also think that these elements are somehow mixing up to create their lungs, heart, stomach, etc. This is the fundamental problem then: we are trying to mix a conceptual model with a perceptual model because we don’t understand that perception is created from a conceptual reality. Without this fundamental understanding, all the other knowledge about the details of Ayurveda is limited at best and flawed at worst. Owing to these problems, we can say that Ayurveda as a science of the body has been lost, but it can be reestablished through a scientific understanding of the nature of atomic reality, the nature of space, time, and causality.

In other words, there can be a true and real science of the human body based on a new theory of matter based on Sāńkhya, which will then become the basis of medicine and cures.

Ayurveda and Atomic Theory

The Ayurveda model of the body is scientific but to appreciate its value, we have to understand hierarchical space-time and atomic reality. Most importantly, we have to understand that the gross material world is just not how it looks in perception. What we see is like a picture on a computer screen. What really exists is like a digital file on a computer disk. The material world is therefore real not because what we see is real, but because there is a digital file from which the perception is created.

There is hence a gross body but it is not a material object. The gross body is an informational model of our perception and activity. Just like pictures and programs can be stored in a computer, and while the picture we see is colors and shapes the actual reality is bits (1s and 0s). Similarly, the activity we perceive is motion and change, but the underlying reality is a program of bits (1s and 0s). The atomic objects are the “informational reality” from which cognitive and conative imagery is created. Unfortunately, we all think that this imagery is the real world, when it is only an image created from reality just like a computer picture on a screen is produced from a digital photo file.

Lessons of Ayurveda for Other Models

This is an important precedent for understanding a variety of Vedic scientific models—e.g. in cosmology—because the space in which these models are represented is not the space that we construct after sense perception. Nowhere can we see a starker example of this than in Ayurveda where the body has a detailed conceptual model, without a reference to the human anatomy.

The space of conceptual and perceptual models is not the same, and yet most people confuse the conceptual model with perception. This is seen very prominently in discussions on Vedic Cosmology where the “earth’s flatness” is taken to mean either that we must perceive the earth as flat or that the model must be wrong. This is a mistaken view of reality in Sāńkhya. The mistake is that the file that stores the information about the picture is flat, but the picture that the file creates is not flat. The Vedic cosmic description pertains to the information file and not to the pictures that can be produced from it. The picture file lies dormant in the computer unless someone clicks on it to create the display. In the same way, the reality lies unmanifest until an observer “clicks” on this reality. That “click” involves choice, karma, time, and God, but the reality exists just like a picture file, and yet it is not perceived until a conscious choice acts.

Unless we understand Sāńkhya we cannot understand the models of cosmos, body, and society, because we keep thinking that if the model is flat, then the world must also be flat. Conversely, if the world is round, then the model must be round. Both extremes are flawed because there are two things—conceptual model and perceptual experience. Modern medicine relies on the perceptual model called anatomy. Ayurveda relies upon the conceptual model of dosha, bhūta, and dhātu. Similarly, Vedic cosmology provides a conceptual model, while modern cosmology produces a perceptual model.

In an earlier post, I described how nationhood is an illusion because we are living in an ideological land where each ideology is a different “position”. What we experience as a nation is produced from the interaction of ideological positions, but the nation is not the reality. Sometimes our senses interact with the abstract part of reality, and that interaction means we can “understand” the world, but we don’t sensually experience it. Then we think that that part of the world is far. For example, an American can interact with the idea of Bharata in the abstract, and it seems that India is far from America.

Anatomy in biology is like nationhood in geography. Just like nations are illusions when the real land is ideological, similarly, anatomy is an illusion when the real space is conceptual. Before we can understand Vedic philosophy, we have to understand how sense perception is not reality. Rather this sense perception is created from reality quite unlike what we see.